Arguing God In The New York Times

We can’t disprove a God, you know,
Cos God can’t be defined.
The God you claim cannot exist
Exists within my mind

My God cannot be fathomed, and
Will never be undone
Each heart perceives Him differently
But God is only One.

We disagree on details, like
His numbers, or His name,
But clearly, all believers know,
Their Gods are all the same

(What’s more, divine diversity
Is clearly heaven-sent:
Whatever God you just disproved
Is not the one I meant!)

A Godly game of whack-a-mole;
Forever un-disproved;
Each time you bring the hammer down
Too late! Cos God just moved!

A question, though, occurs to me—
I find it rather odd—
Why label this cacophony
“A shared belief in God”?

Ah. The horrendous interview with Plantinga was only the first in a series. Gary Gutting’s second interview is with Louise Antony, one of that large majority of philosophers who are atheists. This one was much easier to stomach, although I must say I was not nearly as impressed by Gutting in this interview. I guess he stood out in comparison to Plantinga, but here he seems determined to push Antony into Gutting’s own comfort zone that appears to prefer agnosticism to atheism.

But I do like the way Antony delimits her answers–her atheism is because theism has been proven false to her satisfaction, and she is perfectly comfortable with the notion that someone might disagree. She takes issue with a question about disagreement regarding the existence of God, wondering why that is any more significant a question than the myriad disagreements among theists regarding the characteristics of God (I have often pondered the extent to which different denominations can be said to be in agreement–here, here, and here, for example), which are certainly big enough disagreements to form schisms.

G.G.: Yes, I do think it’s relevant to ask believers why they prefer their particular brand of theism to other brands. It seems to me that, at some point of specificity, most people don’t have reasons beyond being comfortable with one community rather than another. I think it’s at least sometimes important for believers to have a sense of what that point is. But people with many different specific beliefs share a belief in God — a supreme being who made and rules the world. You’ve taken a strong stand against that fundamental view, which is why I’m asking you about that.

L.A.: Well I’m challenging the idea that there’s one fundamental view here. Even if I could be convinced that supernatural beings exist, there’d be a whole separate issue about how many such beings there are and what those beings are like. Many theists think they’re home free with something like the argument from design: that there is empirical evidence of a purposeful design in nature. But it’s one thing to argue that the universe must be the product of some kind of intelligent agent; it’s quite something else to argue that this designer was all-knowing and omnipotent. Why is that a better hypothesis than that the designer was pretty smart but made a few mistakes? Maybe (I’m just cribbing from Hume here) there was a committee of intelligent creators, who didn’t quite agree on everything. Maybe the creator was a student god, and only got a B- on this project.

In any case though, I don’t see that claiming to know that there is no God requires me to say that no one could have good reasons to believe in God. I don’t think there’s some general answer to the question, “Why do theists believe in God?” I expect that the explanation for theists’ beliefs varies from theist to theist. So I’d have to take things on a case-by-case basis.

The common ground that different religions share, that allows us to say they “share a belief in God”, is nowhere near what defines their different faiths.

Gutting, though, misses the bit where something that defies evidence and still gives rise to people who are absolutely certain about minute details (and who will fight over disagreements about those details), and presses Antony for a certainty that she does not feel the need to deliver:

G.G.: O.K., on your view we don’t have any way to judge the relative reliability of people’s judgments about whether God exists. But the question still remains, why are you so certain that God doesn’t exist?

L.A.: Knowledge in the real world does not entail either certainty or infallibility. When I claim to know that there is no God, I mean that the question is settled to my satisfaction. I don’t have any doubts. I don’t say that I’m agnostic, because I disagree with those who say it’s not possible to know whether or not God exists. I think it’s possible to know. And I think the balance of evidence and argument has a definite tilt.

So… yeah. This interview leaves me really liking Antony, really frustrated with Gutting, and all the more convinced that Plantinga can’t think his way out of a wet paper bag.

And the contrast in comments is interesting as well–the comments to the Plantinga interview ran strongly against him, and were frankly more intelligent than the interview. Today’s comments are still coming in, but it looks like evidence of an overall tendency of people to write in more often in complaint and disagreement than in concurrence. My favorite so far makes the argument that Antony can be disproven simply by defining God as “that which we cannot, and never will be able to, fathom”. Or as I have heard it before, “reality beyond the material“. Defining God that way pretty much means that any faith asserting any particular details about God must necessarily be false.

Hey, wait… maybe she’s onto something there.

What Type Of Atheist Are You?

While atheists are privative (defined by what we’re not),
That doesn’t mean we’re all the same—the whole ungodly lot—
Analysis finds atheists of many different stripes;
Most recently, the factors give us six distinctive types.

They found them scientifically; the factors loaded well
But because the subject’s atheists, there’s one thing I can tell:
While others might be sortable—these groups are there to see—
I’ve looked at all the labels, and there’s not a one fits me!

So I was on the road Monday when the news broke on this–some more data-crunching has been done on the Non-Belief in America Research data. Earlier, a factor analysis on data from interviews yielded six types of atheists: the Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic, the Activist Atheist/Agnostic, the Seeker-Agnostic, the Anti-Theist, the Non-Theist, and the Ritual Atheist/Agnostic. Follow the link for fairly detailed descriptions of each type (here it is again).

Monday’s numbers show the percentages of atheists (in a sample of just over a thousand) who self-identify with each category, as described at the link. They also, briefly, present some of the relationships between atheist type and various personality measures. It’s interesting, if still in the very early stages.

My favorite bit, though, comes at the end. This report is addressed to the public, not to a peer-reviewed journal, so the authors take pains to put their findings in context:

If prejudice continues to exist towards atheists in general, one source may stem from the perceived negative experiences by religious people interacting with a very small sub-segment of the overall population of non-believers, mainly the Anti-Theists. In other words, our research showed over 85% of the non-believers sampled to be more or less your “average Joe” when it came to being “angry, argumentative and dogmatic”, they fall right in line with current societal norms, nothing strange here – sorry non-believers, you’re pretty normal when it comes to being psychologically well-adjusted.

It is also important to recognize that the “angry, argumentative and dogmatic” vignette,as used here, does not mean that these Anti-Theists don’t have a right to be any of these things or that they are not even proper psychological responses when recontextualized in light of the Anti-Theists’ life experiences to date. For example, many of the Antitheist typology had responded as recently deconverted from religious belief or socially displeased with the status quo, especially in high social tension-based geographies such as the Southeastern United States. If we engage in a small thought experiment by taking on the perspective of a recent deconvert from a religious tradition (many times a very conservative one) to atheism, it may be easy to see how this small sub segment is, and perhaps deserves to be, angry and argumentative after having previously accepted a worldview at odds with their current beliefs, or lack there-of, especially in areas of the country where high social tension exists between believers and non-believers in general.

It is very important to recognize that these comparisons are being made only within “non-belief”. In other words, these results are not juxtaposed alongside “believers” or any subset of population that identifies as “religious” and therefore no conclusions or empirical inferences can be currently draw as to how the two groups, or rather sub segments of the two groups might stack up against each other. Certainly additional research should explore these typologies in relation to believers to see if such conclusions can hold true for outside perceptions.

And then, even further down, a little bit on the limitations of labels in scientific research. Factor analysis may show us which traits load together, but labeling that cluster of traits is up to the person doing the analysis. That person, as the researchers here, does their best to come up with a name that captures the feel of that subset of the data, aware that any one label must be incomplete, but needing one label. In this case, the label is supposed to represent a type of atheist–so good luck finding a label to please people, many of whom (like the crab in the William James quote they present) proudly reject labels of any sort:

As we finish writing this brief synopsis, Coleman is actually sitting across the table from a good friend (who we will call Bob which is not his real name but allows a reference point for this conversation) who self identifies as an “Anti-Theist” however, he says he does not consider what he, labels himself as, to be a reflection of our very specific research description of a typology we call “Antitheist”. To the readers’ credit, no doubt many of “you” might also share our friend’s sentiments as they speak directly to any social scientific construction of every typology.

As social scientists we are forced to label, yet at the same time, we recognize qualitatively the limits inherent in any label. Certainly this was a research challenge for the project, one that almost derailed our process. Many of the participants disagreed about common use of terms of nonbelief but there was common agreement related to definitions of nonbelief. With this said Bob is not alone. Many of the participants were concerned with issues of social agendas and the separation of church and state. Furthermore, individuals like Bob were in many respects critical of the religious institutions and their agendas. The differences here in typology relate to the mode and value each participant places on how they engage issues of ontology. In other words, what is their preference for debating and considering the place religion and secularity play in our society? For many participants they question such social structures and are critical (antitheist) but their mode of behavior and belief may be different from the group we label antitheist. These labels were chosen by the research team to be reflective of the emotional, personality, and cognitive structures of value these people place on their worldviews (types).

So… take a look at their types. Which type are you? Are you, perhaps, a sub-type? (They are actively looking for subtypes at least within their first category.) Do you defy type? Myself, I suppose I mostly fit in the first category, but I see bits of me in the others as well.